The Digital Skeptic: Giving Thanks for Our Mistakes

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- You know, what I love about Thanksgiving -- and this country -- is the mistakes.

Because have you ever had a perfectly cooked Thanksgiving meal? Of course not. That's the point. The miracle of this day is that the untender turkey and mushed mashed potatoes somehow swirl up into a marvelous, greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts cassoulet.

This turkey-and-stuffing-induced glow makes for the perfect time to take an intellectual stroll through American errata, from the simply silly to our deepest missteps -- then serve up the investor lessons. After all, as Churchill said, "All men make mistakes, but only wise men learn from their mistakes."

The Leisure Screw-Up

The tip-top, first-tier American blunder is of course from the late 1970s. According to the Fashion Encyclopedia, one Jerry Rosengarten matched jackets and pants made of then-new polyester fabrics to create a single suit. This wonder garment would not be for work. Oh, no. This super suit was for leisure.

And the doomed "leisure suit" was born.

Luckily, Rosengarten and the rest of us wised up to the coyote ugly of leisure suits, and they departed from our department stores. Smart marketers, such as Under Armour ( UA), eventually worked out that synthetic fabrics work best when people sweat, not sit around. And $5.4 billion in market cap was created.

Driving the Road to Error

Mistakes can overrun an entire industry. The single best account of a whole business gone bad is the combined mishandling of the American auto industry in David Halberstam's The Reckoning. Halberstam did the diagnostics on Ford's ( F) failure on all cylinders to stave off competitor Nissan ( NSANY).

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who reviewed Halberstam's book in 1986 for The New York Times, traced the screw-up to exactly one place: the finance men at Ford.

"These men hold, or anyhow held, the ultimate power of decision and used it regularly in an exceptionally parochial way to repress needed investment and innovation," Galbraith wrote.

Eventually, Ford -- and GM ( GM) and Chrysler -- figured out that, no, the bean counters don't make the cars. The engineers, designers and craftsmen make the cars. And, duh, you need to pay something to get a car worth something. And go figure, American automakers once again create some of the best cars on earth.

Ford posted its third consecutive full-year profit this year.

Social Screw-Ups

When these United States decide to screw up en masse, baby, do we do it by the caseload.

For reasons I have never heard explained, somehow during the early part of the 20th century even our smartest citizens agreed that alcohol -- in any form -- was the road to ruin. Historical filmmaker Ken Burns made a fabulous documentary on the grinding process of how in 1919 we passed the 18th Amendment banning the stuff.

Never mind organized crime or Al Capone; nothing but pure foolishness ensued.

"During Prohibition, temperance activists hired a scholar to rewrite the Bible by removing all references to alcohol beverages," is my favorite moment from the timeline on

It took us a while -- almost 13 years -- but in 1933 we realized our errors. Congress passed the 21st Amendment repealing the 18th. And we relearned a cornerstone of democracy: It's easier to regulate than forbid.

"What America needs now is a drink," said then President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Uncivil Errors

When America does not see its mistakes for what they are, quite simply, horror ensues. When you sit through Steven Spielberg's Thanksgiving hit Lincoln -- which you should -- realize that during the Civil War our nation struggled to manage the war dead. Photographers such as Mathew Brady documented how many of the hundreds of thousands of Americans killed lay in open fields rotting.

Drew Gilpin Faust, who now runs Harvard University, wrote the definitive book on the errors made in managing war casualties in This Republic of Suffering. Eventually we created national cemeteries to inter these war casualties, including the Gettysburg National Cemetery (which by the by is what Lincoln was dedicating when he gave his Gettysburg Address).

But we made -- and still make -- a terrible mistake.

"Confederate burials did not receive placement in the national cemetery," says the National Park Service website for the Gettysburg National Cemetery -- a fact that still infuriates many from south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Just ask my New Orleans in-laws and they will tell you flat out of their relatives who were left to the feral hogs while Lincoln redecorated the White house.

No matter what you do, you don't deserve that.

Learning From the Digital Mistake

This leads us smack into the today's dead serious investor lesson: dealing with our dunderheadedness in this digital age.

Considering how world class we Americans are at getting stuff wrong, is it really that much of a stretch that we muffed the rollout of never-before-seen digital technologies? Is it that much of a step to wonder if the foundations of say, Google ( GOOG), Facebook ( FB), LinkedIn ( LNKD), Pinterest and Twitter -- and all the rest of this digital nonsense -- were not erected on the logical high ground?

Personally I don't think it is. But that one is up to you.

Either way, we should give thanks we live in a place where we can be this stupid and still have the chance to survive.
This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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